I have a confession to make…I’m a Twilight fan. Go ahead and laugh. It’s ridiculous that a gray-bearded, bald man should be interested in a silly, teen-queen, movie franchise, but I’ve always tried to be honest with you, so there it is. It all started when we were looking for something to watch at Book and Music Exchange a few years ago. There was nothing interesting looking, and it was at the height of promotions for one of the sequels. The first episode of the “saga” was staring us in the face, and I said, “Why not get this and see what all the fuss is about.” This was my first mistake. It sat on the shelf at home for ages until one night we had nothing better to do. This was mistake two: idle hands. The whole “vampire with a conscience” theme sucks you in (sorry for the pun) and the next thing you know, you’re watching the third movie and anticipating the fourth. The whole time you fear that someone will find out. Oh, the shame.
The vampires are on my mind not because of Halloween, but because I’ve been thinking of vampires of another kind: bureaucrats. In talking to some industry insiders this week at title companies, mortgage banks, etc., I’ve discovered that real estate sales did slow considerably in October. It’s a trend I could sense in our business, and it’s been confirmed by the preliminary sales figures and the anecdotal evidence from people I trust. It would appear that the government shutdown had a negative effect on the industry. Not too shocking, but before you go pinning the blame on the representatives that helped force the shutdown, consider why shutting down approximately 20% of the government would negatively impact home sales. The Feds don’t own homes, right? They’re not a bank either, are they? There are many reasons, but the first one is the scariest if you’re a fan of freedom: The US government is the lender of first resort in this country. They outsource the processing, but at the end of the day, the person holding the paper on most of the loans in the country is Uncle Sam. The loans are insured, guaranteed, or issued directly through him. Nothing against family, but as far as uncles go, he’s not my favorite. And I definitely don’t want to owe him money. I’ve met his collection agents, and they look increasingly more like mob enforcers every day.
The vampire movie applies to more than just blood sucking bureaucrats though. There’s a particularly funny scene in one of the Twilight films where a character reveals to his friend, Charlie, that he can shape shift into a wolf. Charlie was just a guy going about his business and, next thing you know, this kid takes his pants off and morphs into a wolf. Yikes! His explanation: You don’t live in the world you think you do. That’s a message that everyone reading this should take home. You don’t live in the country you once knew. The bank is not the one making your loan. It’s still where you go to get the money, but all they’re doing is packaging a product. They’re contractors for a clearing house in Washington D.C. (Mordor on the Potomac). The mortgage business is regulated to the point that, even if your bank does make you a direct loan, they’re under the thumb of a thousand D.C. bureaucrats on the manner in which they provide you the money. It’s not just the mortgage business though. It’s everything. The Federal Register is the government’s record of all new federal regulations and rules issued. They put out a new record each day which you can access online at FederalRegister.gov. With just a cursory view, you can see that they put out about 300-500 pages on an average day. Every business day, that is, there are hundreds of new rules and regulations that every industry is expected to comply with… every blessed business day. What’s interesting is that during the shutdown, only ten to twenty pages were recorded. A nice drop, but even in its sleep, the Federal giant has regulations to dream up.
Where does it all end? I’m not sure. What matters is that we start to realize that the economy might be sluggish because we’re all trying to comply with the regulatory web that’s been woven. These rules that are for consumer protection might be holding us back. Like a tight rope walker, the American economy had its brightest days when it was working without a net. Perhaps an economy with more risk would provide more rewards for more people. Just a thought.
The rain is gently falling as I sit down to write this week’s thoughts. September almost gone, there is a familiar calm in the air. Today is just a preview; dreary days lie ahead. Some of them will be wonderful, but many will not. After watching a movie the other night I remarked to my wife how wonderfully depressing it was. It touched an old wound on my soul the way you rub a sore muscle; not enough to hurt, but enough to remember that it did hurt. Today is like that. Dreary days don’t make life pleasant, but pleasant days are often very dreary. It’s good to take the truth that each day gives you and use it as best you can.
History cycles and repeats, but it is also multidimensional. Sometimes the highest peak is in the middle of the lowest valley. No, I didn’t swallow a philosophy book. It’s just one of those days. I passed the fire station this morning and the flags were at half staff. I’m not sure why. How could I be? They’re always at half staff. It seems like they’ve been that way since the planes hit twelve years ago. We’ve been a nation with an identity crisis ever since. Every time they’re lowered it’s for some tragedy. Sometimes it’s national, sometimes state, but it’s always sad: A soldier was slain. Some overmedicated video gamer slaughtered innocents. Some madmen blew something up. It’s important that we take note of these sad days, but how long will it be before we should just cut off the top half of the flagpole? When something loses its usefulness, it is generally discarded. Perhaps the time has come to concede that the top half of the flagpole is no longer needed. In a country of 300 million, will there ever be a time without a tragedy to mourn?
I don’t remember the flag being lowered as a child. The school had one that went up in the morning and came down every afternoon, but I don’t remember it at half staff. Have I romanticized my youth, or was it at the top? Surely there were as many tragedies in the 1980’s as there are now. In fact, a quick check of the Justice Department’s statistics shows that more homicides occurred in the 1980’s than in the first decade of this century. There were nearly twice as many, in fact. I know homicide isn’t the main reason flags get lowered, but as a measure of how tragic the world is it would seem a fair device. The world was tragic in the 80’s. It’s always been tragic. Our reaction to it is what has changed. We memorialize everything now. We dwell on tragedy. We dwell on everything. A nation founded by movers and shakers has become stagnant and boring. In the 1920’s, America produced the tallest man-made structure on Earth (to that point) in the form of the Chrysler Building. It took less than two years. Today, twelve years after we were attacked in New York, they’re almost done with the fourth tallest skyscraper in the world. It’s almost a thousand feet shorter than the tallest one. To further that less-than-bronze finish, the Arabs built the tallest one with our oil money. How fitting.
We live in a wild space age where we have the ability to travel between planets, but not the will. We have technology to build buildings thousands of feet high, but lack the desire to make them the tallest. We can travel thousands of miles in a few hours, but we stand in line for hours to get onboard the plane. In a land where we were once innocent until proven guilty, we are now all subject to search and seizure without warrant because we live in fear that there might be a terrorist among us. It is the best and worst of times. It’s a cycle. Dickens was right when he said it in the 1850’s, and it’s true today. The lowered flag is a powerful symbol for a nation rife with disease. It’s lowered every time there is a new symptom. Like all diseases for which there is no known cure, we focus on the symptoms and try to treat them, but perhaps it’s time to look past the medicine. I once heard the definition of an agnostic is, “an atheist who has reached old age.” Perhaps it’s time that we as a nation look past our doubts and begin to pray for a miracle; because we have cancer, and it’s stage four. The barbarians are at the gate. Let’s do more than “shelter in place.”
Those of us educated in the old school may have noticed that we suffer daily from a growing language barrier. Old school used to be a figure of speech, but for me it is now literal. Both elementary schools I attended are now abandoned. My teachers are all gray now. Most are retired. Some are dead. The language they taught in those buildings is now obsolete, replaced in the new America by a more progressive and pc lingo. Of course, I don’t mean Spanish or Chinese. The words still look like English, but their meanings have gotten quite blurry. Words and concepts that once had meanings now are more abstract. Orwell called it “newspeak.”
This reality dawned on me the other day when I read the sign in the courthouse that says, “There is no court in this building.” How clear. Of course, the non-courthouse is the home office of the County Judge, who hasn’t really been a judge since the 70’s. Technically his title is Judge/Executive, but that title’s a little laborious if you ask me. Titles with backslashes or hyphenations have always irritated me. Babel (see biblical tower where everyone got confused) extends further than just downtown though. It permeates the culture. I’m sure you’ve noticed the headlines about all the people going on food stamps in this robust economic recovery - curious that people should need help buying food in an economic recovery. NBC News numbers the recipients at about 46 million, but none of them are on “food stamps.” They receive plastic credit cards as part of the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” That’s much simpler. We wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that it was a bad thing to be too poor to buy your own food. If you just need a card to supplement your nutrition… that sounds pretty benign. Carry on.
Being around agriculture all my life, I’ve known a lot of farmers. These were men who got up early, worked outside, and went home in need of a bath; my kind of people. Farmers are a dying breed now. They’re being replaced by “agri-businessmen.” Excuse me. That should read: “agri-businesspersons.” They plan their crop protection in meetings with consultants who want to partner with them and grow their business to create “sustainable crop management strategies that result in mutually beneficial patterns of growth.” That’s all fine and good, but it’s just a long way of saying that a seed and chemical salesman wants to sell them as much stuff as possible for as long as they can. Imagine a toilet paper company saying they wanted to partner with you to protect your health and hygiene in order to ensure a long lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The farmers of 100 years ago would find newspeak ridiculous. I was just born 100 years too late. You can apply the phenomenon to any industry: Teachers are now “educators.” Exterminators are “Pest Management Specialists.” Realtors are “Residency, Accommodation, and Personal Environment Consultants.” Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the point.
A client told me the story of his ninety year old father the other day. He was a man who worked hard, started with nothing, and ended up with an attractive, paid-for, brick house, money in the bank, and no debt. He worked up from nothing in a country where court was held in the court house, teachers taught children, the judge was a judge, and farmers worked on farms. In modern America, it’s a little harder to work your way up. You have to navigate the courthouse without a court and the school without teachers, all while being led by leaders who do anything but lead. It’s no wonder so many people end up on welfare that’s not welfare. Come to think of it, welfare’s a misnomer too. It used to be called the poor house; a term with no room for misinterpretation.
At Farmer’s House, we’re not real estate consultants. I am a real estate broker: one who markets other people’s property to earn a commission. If the relationship was not mutually beneficial, I assume we wouldn’t still be doing it. There are some in this business that call us a “discount broker.” That’s also a bit of a misnomer. Farmer’s House is a full service brokerage. Our prices are just competitive, with averages around 3% for residential sales. If you went to the old school, we might be just what you need.
“Actually no, I wasn’t writing about you. But if the shoe fits, feel free to lace that puppy up and wear it.” -Unknown
Anyone who daydreams a lot has probably envisioned their life as a movie at some point. It’s a touch narcissistic to think about who should play the part of the hero in your life’s story, but we all have a touch of narcissism from time to time. Mine would be John Cusack. He’s the right mix of gloomy looking and sarcastic for me. Sure, he’s better looking, but not so much that people would throw things at the screen over the discrepancy. They actually made my movie over a decade ago. It’s called High Fidelity.
High Fidelity is the story of Rob Gordon, a record store owner in Chicago who does some serious soul searching after being discarded by a girlfriend for his inability to grow up. Rob begins the story obsessing about his mistakes in life vis-à-vis women, and opens a broader study of his overall failures as a human being. Upon Laura leaving, Rob surmises that his relationships have been the same time after time since he was a kid. To educate the audience, he makes a list of his “all-time, top five breakups, in chronological order.” The first act leads us through these relationships on Rob’s quest to identify what’s wrong with him. Was he destined for rejection?
After contacting the biggest lost loves he makes a startling discovery. Nothing was lost. The great love of his life, the one he nearly killed himself over, turned out to be a pompous windbag with nothing to offer intellectually. Granted, she was played by Catherine Zeta Jones, but beyond the obvious reasons for liking her there was nothing there. Let’s face it, looking like Catherine Zeta Jones only gets you so far. Everything in his past was lacking depth. Each failure represented just another one of life’s course corrections; except maybe the last one. The one that mattered got away. Could it be that in looking at all those lost opportunities he had missed the one that was worthwhile? What is his problem, anyway? For someone who’s ever been in that mind-set, it feels like he’s taking words out of your mouth. There’s great satisfaction in watching someone who thinks like you say the clever things you can never quite pull off.
In one particularly poignant scene after the breakup, Laura points out to Rob that he’s not living his life in the present. He sits around making lists of dream jobs and lamenting that he’s not a musician, or a film-maker, or a whatever. He refuses to relish the truth that he is, in fact, living the dream. He’s a great appreciator of music and pop-art and his work (although not financially rewarding) is based on that.
Cusack is supported by a cast of great talents like Jack Black and Todd Louiso who play his quirky employees. The record store is the setting for discussions where the boys come up with purely academic, “All-time, top five” lists of songs, or movies, or whatever. They are so happy to analyze the art created by others that they use their appreciation as an excuse for not creating their own.
By the end of the film, Rob hasn’t completely turned his life around. He’s still obsessive and neurotic, but he has learned to appreciate the good things in his life. Hate to spoil it for you, but it’s a classic story. The boy gets the girl and nobody dies. That’s how I’ve always hoped my life would work out. Well, death at some point, but after developing an appreciation for things. The final scenes give you hope for Rob. He’s found a way to look at things from another person’s perspective.
When I saw the “if the shoe fits” thing at the beginning of this piece last week, it reminded me of all the people that ask if I’m writing about them in these Will Rogers imitations I self-publish in this space every other week. I take inspiration from life, but you can pretty much bet I’m not writing about you. I’m usually writing about truth, and hopefully that applies in your life. Rob and I are living the dream. My all-time, top five, dream job: professional writer. If I have to sell houses to do it, that’s ok. I may never rise above mediocrity in writing, but I will appreciate it all the same. Selling houses pays my bills anyway. Keep us in mind if you need a hand. 3% commissions are the norm here, and mediocre is not a descriptive for our track record. Visit farmershouse.com for client testimonials.
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not
in this world to live up to mine.” –Bruce Lee
Individuality and non-conformism are both a blessing and a curse. It is very liberating to live by your own rules, but it’s a full time job remembering the quote above. The only expectations that matter are those one has of himself. It would seem that the more enlightenment one achieves, the more of an outcast he can expect to be. Just take old Socrates.
Father of western philosophy, Socrates was a pretty strange duck. The fifth century BC was a bit of a weird time. The people were obsessed with money and sex, the politicians were corrupt, and society in general was violent and poorly educated (sound familiar?). From what we know about him through his students, Socrates was a bit of an outcast. It seems he too was a non conformist. He didn’t bathe much, or even change clothes. He had weird opinions about the universe, and went around asking rhetorical questions all the time. If not for one of his famous students, some cat named Plato, we might not even know he lived. He didn’t take time to write anything down. Luckily, Plato took some notes. From those notes, we get a picture of one of the wisest men in history. I’m not educated enough to walk you through all the philosophy. From what I’ve learned Plato had more of it figured out than Socrates anyway. What’s interesting to me is the trial and death of the old philosopher king. Even smelling like he did, some people caught on to his smarts, and eventually he got some respect for being an intellect. That was a tough blow for a rugged man living by his own rules. If the majority was accepting him, maybe he was losing his edge. Socrates set out to prove that there were others wiser than he. He asked around with some of the artists and politicians who all proceeded to say, “Well sure, I know just about everything there is to know.” Just imagine modern politicians in a TV interview. (This serves as evidence that even in ancient times, famous people were pompous gasbags.) After hearing how smart everyone else thought they were, Socrates realized the truth. He knew that he didn’t really know all that much. Knowledge of his own ignorance made him the smartest man in town. When he pointed out how silly the “smart” ones were they were offended, so they framed him up for a crime and put him on trial. He’d been “corrupting the youth,” and not going to the temple enough on state holidays. He was sentenced to death by poisoning, which he accepted freely. It’s the same old story. In an age of violence and depravity a man spoke of ethics and logic, so they killed him for it. They laughed at Noah for building the ark. They heckled Moses for getting lost in the desert. They force fed hemlock to Socrates, and they nailed Christ to a cross. Majority rule is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes the majority is made up of lunatics with tiny brains.
It’s been a few years ago now that I was talking to one of the more independent people know. He’d asked me about my new business and how it was going. I said that the public was responding and business was good, but I wasn’t making many friends out of my competitors. His response stuck with me. “Big deal, making friends won’t get you into heaven anyway,” he said. I suppose the Socratic thing to do would’ve been to put it in the form of a question, but the point landed anyway. He helped confirm what I already knew. Two thirds of the public is certifiable. The remaining third that makes up the sane minority is more than enough people to keep me busy and my business successful.
At Farmer’s House, we provide full service real estate brokerage for a price you can actually afford. Our average client pays around 3% to sell their house, and we’ve got a long history of success in getting homes sold for top dollar. The post modern majority remains impressed with itself. I consider myself an odd duck, although I do bathe regularly. What would you call a group where conformism is the norm and “competitors” go to meetings regularly to compare notes? Why would a group reject the idea that someone could perform a service for a price that’s below the norm? If it can’t be done, how does the outcast continue to survive? Class dismissed.
Easy money! That was the rallying cry heard from the bottom tier. It was a signal to the little guy on the top tier that a heavy stick was coming his way. In the waning days of the last century, there were still a few locals laboring in the tobacco barns of western Kentucky, but the tide had started turning. The social safety net had snagged quite a few Americans already and they had found how to feed well without the dirt and sweat of the tobacco barn in late August. Those of us still indentured by family obligation or naïve dedication to a dying way of life were learning some Spanish. Our new helpers were learning some English, like, easy money.
The Hispanic fellow that hollered our newly found catch phrase was earning nothing of the sort. At that time, I remember his wage was around $8/hr. That’s almost double the minimum wage of the day, but it was hardly easy. It meant long hours in hot weather and the type of back breaking strain that makes a man old before his time. Still, as the heavy sticks came off the trailer, “Easy money,” was the cry. He had traveled thousands of miles from home hiding his small cash reserves from corrupt police and roadside bandits along the way. In the tradition of other travelers that risked the unknown for the promise of the same, he’d left his home for an American dream. The risks he took were not to sign up for a government program, but to work an honest day for an honest wage. The money he made was not for buying luxuries, but for supporting a family that he’d left behind half way around the world. His words have always had an ironic echo in my ear, but looking back, maybe it was easy money compared to his other choices.
Fast forward twenty years. For yours truly, the tobacco barns no longer house the living they once did. My family obligations met and my naiveté less wild than it once was, I have found my way into another field full of easy money, real estate brokerage. The work is physically cleaner than the tobacco barns of my youth, but it is metaphorically every bit as dirty. There are all sorts of shady characters to deal with, and some nights, the shower can’t come quick enough to wash off all the slime. Anyone that has done it knows that harvesting tobacco is very repetitive. After a couple weeks you even start to do it in your sleep. You’ve made the same motions so many times that you’ll wake yourself up going through them in bed. That’s the level of acuity we have acquired selling houses at Farmer’s House. It’s not something we do just a few times a year. While the average agent only does around 12 transactions a year (according to NAR*), this agent did over five times that in 2012. In 2013, that record should improve based on current production levels. One of the things that came out of the grueling misery of the tobacco patch in the old days was that after a few weeks, a body was in shape. As a friend once put it, “at the end of the season you felt strong enough to pull up a fence post with your bare hands.” And we did. It’s no different in this field. The overwhelming majority of the agents you will interview fall into the category of average. Some of them are even competent. Few of them sell five times the average. Only one sells five times the average and does it at a price that beats everyone else in town. Our season never stops here. Year round, we’re field ready.
My limited life experience has shown me that the easy money is rarely honest, and the honest money is rarely easy. There are probably easier ways to feed the family than being the best laborer in the tobacco barn that is Owensboro real estate. Like my friend from down south all those years ago, I’ve taken a few risks to find my way to this particular barn. I might as well work it for all I can while I’m here. It’s interesting to me that when I run into competitors they always ask me about the farm. For some reason, I feel like they want me to go there and stay. Sorry ladies. No dice. Consider this a free education in a language you will eventually hear a lot more. 3%... Easy money!
“Grub first, then ethics.” -Bertolt Brecht, 20th Century German Communist
Bertolt Brecht was a poet, playwright, and a devout Marxist. That’s the extent of my knowledge about the man. The quote above does encourage me though. Communists always amaze me when they let the truth slip out. If a Marxist can process a truthful thought there is still hope for the world; even if it is a simple truth. This particular truth is that communists are not motivated by high ideals, but rather by an empty stomach. Unlike the capitalists they so despise, they seek not to build castles, but to take just enough from their neighbor to ensure they are equal in their misery and want. The means don’t matter, just equality of “grub.” They are the human virus that does nothing for itself save infect others with envy and spread the fever of jealousy.
It takes a certain naiveté to lecture about ethics in the present day. It opens one up to all sorts of scrutiny and accusations. Daunting a task as it is, I still climb upon the high horse every now and then and paint a target on my back. Please do not infer that the writer is perfect. I am a fallen and sinful man, much in need of forgiveness and redemption. Still, when working in an industry as filthy as real estate, it is fitting and proper to call attention to the, excuse the word, communism.
It would be tempting to just rail against the corruption and malfeasance among real estate agents. In an industry where competitors frequently “cooperate,” there is plenty of room for suspicion and underhandedness, but the problem is bigger than that. The only thing that’s kept up with inflation over the last fifty years is the devalued commodity of a person’s word. Contracts don’t help much. No one considers them binding any more. I’m frequently asked why people do not put down a large deposit when buying a home any more. The first answer is that most of them are broke. The second answer is that they don’t put down “earnest money” because many people have little intention of being earnest; if there is a way to wiggle out of a deal, they will often take it. The whole idea of standing good on a contract has become passé. It was my privilege to be mentored by several good businessmen as a youth. I witnessed some of them stand good on deals even to their detriment. These were people whose word was their bond. Where did all those people go? Ethics, in short, is putting the needs of others before your own, and standing good on your word.
This week marks the sixth year since the founding of Farmer’s House. It was an idea I had that would solve a few problems for me. I wanted a more predictable income. I thought that if I competed on price and was the most professional, most affordable real estate broker in Owensboro, my phone would ring more. That part has worked out perfectly. We’ve proven that we can give great service and sell houses at a price most people can afford (around 3% on average). The second goal was to get away from an unfair paradigm where too many people get paid for doing nothing. I was tired of paying a franchise fee for a broken brand and a broker for basically nothing. Those were small reasons, but I did one important thing in planning my new business that is the reason it has succeeded these six years: I looked at it from a consumer’s standpoint. What would I want if I were selling my house and needed some help? That is the secret to our success. It’s rooted in the golden rule. It’s not that I set out to “save the world,” as one of my cynical colleagues put it at the time. I just was trying to plan a better future for myself. As a result, countless families have benefited. We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for our clients when you compare our rates to six percent. At the same time, my agents and I have improved our position in life as well. This is the difference in communism and capitalism. For six years, I’ve “done well by doing good.” A good friend once told me, “When you throw your bread in the water it comes back buttered.” I think that’s what he meant. It’s important to stay hungry, but putting ethics first can feed you too.